Why ‘Snowpiercer’ Succeeds and ‘The Purge’ Fails

I want shoe! ... to know your place

Over the weekend, I watched Snowpiercer again, this time on a huge screen at the Angelika Mosaic as opposed to a rather small screen at a D.C. theater.* It plays so much better on the huge screen than it does on the small screen that I'm actually kind of angry that a.) I saw the film in that dreadfully tiny theater the first time around, and b.) so many people are going to watch this film on VOD rather than at the multiplex.

Anyway, I got to thinking again about just how much better this picture was than The Purge: Anarchy. (I scathingly reviewed that film here.) I have to say, I was somewhat surprised to see people I respect giving the film positive notices. Over at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote that it was "breathtaking to watch a throwaway studio sequel break its corporate chains before your very eyes and become something thrilling and dangerous and alive." Indiewire's Eric Kohn's review is headlined "Why ‘The Purge: Anarchy' Is this Summer's Essential Guilty Pleasure."

This town deserves a better class of allegory. And Joon-ho Bong has already given it to us. (Some spoilers for both The Purge: Anarchy and Snowpiercer after the jump.)

Leave aside the fact that Snowpiercer is, without question, a more visually interesting and better-acted film. Let's just #RealTalk for a moment: There's nothing particularly subversive or interesting about a Hollywood production portraying the wealthy or the political right as monstrous. The suburb as a soul-killing incubator of resentment and hatred for others is a rather old trope (The Purge was only slightly less subtle than American Beauty in its contempt for the bourgeois) and the wealthy as horrendous pigs keeping the people down is pretty well-worn territory (and done with more verve and style in, say, Land of the Dead). Indeed, it's far more unusual to subvert those tropes; one of the reasons The Dark Knight Rises succeeds is because Christopher Nolan, through Bane, is actively mocking the idea of class warfare.**

Though no less subtle in its allegory, Snowpiercer differs from The Purge: Anarchy in its willingness to show the cost of destroying "the system." It is truly a revolutionary text in that it denies change can come from within, that the system itself can be reformed. The only way to right the wrongs of this ossified class system is to literally blow it all up—and kill most of humanity in the process.

I briefly alluded to "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" in my original Snowpiercer review before moving on. However, on second viewing, I can't help but feel that Ursula Le Guin is a better starting point for discussing this film than Karl Marx.

Think back to the end of Snowpiercer, when Wilford (Ed Harris) is explaining to Curtis (Chris Evans) how their society works—how it has to work for humanity to survive. They live in a closed loop, a managed economy. For all to live, all most work together. That means the leadership must cull the herd at appropriate times. It means forcing sacrifices onto the proletariat. Those at the front of the train thrive, but only because there are so few of them.

And Curtis understands this. He even accepts it, briefly: When Yona (Ah-sung Ko) runs to Curtis, pleading for his help, he brusquely pushes her back. As the mentor and intellectual force at the back of the train Gilliam (John Hurt) has told Curtis throughout the film, he is a leader. And after Curtis comes to believe*** that Gilliam and Wilford were working in tandem he accepts the leadership role Wilford offers him. It's not until Yona shows Curtis the secret at the heart of the mystical engine—the child sacrifice it requires to keep their society working—that he rejects the system and decides it must die.

Curtis doesn't just walk away from Omelas: he destroys it. And in doing so, he condemns humanity to extinction.****

In its willingness to show what happens when you torch the system—as opposed to just screaming into the wind about "injustice" and "inequality" and the like—Snowpiercer serves as a far more interesting, and far more thought-provoking, text than either iteration of The Purge.

*Seriously, though, the "auditorium" in this "cinema" was nothing more than a, maybe, eight-foot wide screen in front of folding chairs. I'm sorry, but selling that as a "cinema" is borderline malpractice and clear-cut false advertising. 

**The last time I watched TDKR in the theater I literally laughed out loud during Bane's speech because I finally saw how Hardy was playing the scene: the google eyes, the little head shake. He's actively mocking those who decry "the corrupt" and "the wealthy" and "the myths of opportunity." He laughs at the idea that he is righteous in giving "it back to you, the people." Class warfare is just a tool for another band of brigands to seize power—a tool he wields all too easily.

***I suppose there is some measure of debate over whether or not Wilford and Gilliam were actually working together. Was Wilford lying, as Gilliam said he would? Or was Gilliam hiding the truth, as Wilford says he had to in order to maintain order and keep them all alive?

****I'm sorry, but two children in a snowy mountain with little more than the fur coats on their backs would not be able to survive, even in things were gradually warming up. The last minute of screen time—the Coca Cola polar bear promising life's return to the frozen cinder that is Earth—is the one false note in this picture.